Opening Fairfax Media’s new Sydney headquarters on Thursday, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd promised to usher in a new era of press freedom in Australia. Rudd told the gathering that Labor would honour its commitment to reform Freedom of Information (FOI) laws and to promote a "pro-disclosure" culture across government. There will always be argy-bargy between the government and the press, that's the nature of a democracy," he said. "The key is striking the balance between the public's right to know and the confidentiality needed for important decision-making."
Rudd has his work cut out if he is serious about his intent. On the same day as the Sydney speech, the journalists’ union the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) posted their 2008 annual report into the state of press freedom in Australia. Although it found some promising developments over the past twelve months, the report (pdf) found a litany of faults on a range of issues such as FOI, whistleblower protection, and anti-terror laws that together seriously erode the country’s reputation as a robust democracy.
In his introduction to the report, MEAA Federal Secretary Chris Warren took the school report card metaphor saying Australia “could do better” as he hoped for “marked improvement” next year. However he did point to improvements in high profile media cases and the important formation of the Right to Know Coalition which brought together many of the country’s most high-profile media organisations such as News Ltd, Fairfax, the ABC, SBS and AAP. Their independent audit authored by Irene Moss in November 2007 was a damning finding of the state of free speech in Australia being whittled away by hundreds of laws and suppression orders.
Within a month of the publication of Moss’ findings, the country had its first change of government in 11 years. Much of the MEAA’s optimism for the future is based on the promises of the newly installed Rudd administration. Rudd said he wanted to work towards more open government and pledged to introduce measures to foster press freedom. There was also progress on Shield Laws at a state level. However substantial work will need to be done to combat the raft of anti-terror and sedition laws the Howard Government brought in (mostly with bi-partisan support) since 9/11.
The report says that opposition to anti-terror legislation still exist despite an expensive and costly public-awareness anti-terror campaign mounted by the former Government. As Will Anderson wrote in Leftwrites in February this year, the anti-terror laws have resulted in just one conviction despite all the “lofty rhetoric, national security hotlines, adverts and fridge magnets, hundreds of days in court and millions of dollars of public money spent.” The Press Council agrees the laws are excessive and believe they shield government from scrutiny.
The report also criticised the sedition section of the Anti-Terrorism Act (No 2) 2005. Then Attorney General introduced the law saying it would be reviewed within 12 months. That review never occurred. The Right to Know report identified several serious defects in the wording of the law including the imprecision of the word “urge,” the lack of necessity to prove intention of ill-will, the possibility that verbal support for illegal groups is in scope, and its universal jurisdiction. The report is concerned that the new Labor Government has made no effort to have the sedition upgraded or removed since it assumed power,
Protection of whistleblowers is another area of press freedom weakness. The report documented the 2007 case of Allan Kessing who was sentenced to a nine-month suspended jail term after being found guilty of leaking a confidential report on airport security to The Australian newspaper. During Kessing’s trial, his lawyer argued without success hat his client’s disclosure of two classified reports was in the public interest. Similarly Mohamed Haneef’s lawyer Stephen Keim was harassed by federal police commissioner Mick Keelty after Keim leaked transcripts of Haneef’s interview with federal police that undermined the case against him. The anti-whistleblower culture of the Howard government was such that in four years they spent more than 2,100 police hours and $2 million trying to track them down.
The report has also touched on several other key points related to press freedom. They recommended journalist Shield Laws based on the presumption sources should not be revealed. They commented on the excessive prosecution culture that saw the Chaser satirists charged for the APEC motorcade stunt (since dropped) and the charges against the Daily Telegraph for trespassing at Sydney Airport while doing a story on how easy it was to breach security. The report praised the new uniform defamation laws that stop forum shopping but lamented a new ruling in a Sydney restaurant case that established a new category of “business defamation”.
Freedom of Information, Suppression orders and privacy laws are also obstacles for working journalists. To fix these problems, the MEAA and the Right to Know Coalition are expecting big things of the new government’s plans. Called “Government information: Restoring trust and integrity”, the policy released by Rudd and Joe Ludwig prior to the election pledged to bring together the functions of privacy protection and freedom of information in an Office of the Information Commissioner, to preserve the existing role of the Privacy Commissioner and to appoint a Freedom of Information Commissioner.
But Sydney Morning Herald FOI writer Matthew Moore cautioned about the policy’s lack of detail. “The critical issue is when this policy will be enacted,” he said. “Oppositions are huge fans of tough FOI laws but regularly experience a dramatic change of heart the moment the first government limo turns up.” The pressure is now on Rudd to deliver.